Writing persuasively is an undervalued skill. Wouldn’t you love to be able to do it all the time?
Think of the benefits – from emails through proposals, to job applications and marketing material, the ability to get ideas out of your head and into other people’s heads in ways which are compelling, memorable and engaging helps to bring people with you, to get your ideas acted on more often, can boost your personal brand and reputation and increase your influence.
What persuasive writing isn’t
It’s important to note what persuasive writing isn’t. It’s not machiavellian, manipulative or tricksy. It’s simply learning how to construct and lay out your ideas for maximum effect. All of us are choosing how to do this anyway, every time we send an email or write a proposal, it’s just that most of us aren’t being conscious or considered enough about how we do this.
Here are 11 ideas I’ve found useful to make my writing more persuasive and engaging:
- Give yourself time. It’s very hard to write persuasively (or even well) if you’re in a hurry. If your message is important, set aside some time for it.
- Don’t write and edit at the same time – creation and criticism use two different parts of your brain, and you can’t do them together. If you’ve got an important email – don’t press ‘send’ immediately. Write it, leave it, get a coffee, think about something else for a few minutes and then go back to it. I promise – every time you do this you’ll see an improvement you can make.
- Understand the reader. Don’t write just what you want to say, write what the reader needs to hear. Great communicators are always focused on their audience, rather than themselves.
- Use ‘social proof’. Testimonials, outrageous name-dropping, referring to competitors. If you can show that your idea has worked and been popular and useful to others, it will be more persuasive. It will be even more persuasive if your social proof relates to people exactly like your reader. For example, if you’re writing a proposal, and your prospect is a Finance Director, mention ‘the last 3 Finance Directors we’ve worked with benefited particularly from …‘ If you’re emailing a team to get them to attend a meeting prepared with some ideas, mention another team who are a bit ahead because of their preparation.
- Strengths and weaknesses. Nearly always, anything you’re trying to persuade other people of will have strengths and weaknesses – pros and cons. It can nearly always make your idea more persuasive if you list the weakness first, and then follow it with the strength. ‘Our next suggestion is a bit out of your budget, but it will bring you an immediate benefit in areas A, B, and C.’ is more persuasive than ‘We can give you a benefit in areas A, B, and C but you will need to spend more than your budget‘.
- Articulate problems. This creates instant drama, especially near the beginning of your message. Problems – especially if you articulate them well – nearly always get emotional connection and make your message more memorable. For example, rather than writing ‘It’s important we’re all on time‘ try ‘Last year, starting late meant that we had to miss out on the free coffee and croissants‘ If you’re like me, you’ll do ANYTHING not to miss free croissants!
- Use visual language – especially stories. Visual language means things like comparisons, metaphors, analogies, and – of course – stories. There’s an old phrase in sales “Facts tell, but stories sell“. The reason for this is that humans are story-telling machines. We find visual ideas easy to understand, and things that are easy to understand are easy to believe. In a proposal, take the prospect on a narrative journey; in a simple email, lanaguage like “What we want is something similar to …” will make your writing more persuasive.
- Layout. This sounds simple, but the way that your text looks will affect how persuasive it is. If you have long, dense paragraphs, your reader will find it much more difficult to stay with you. Break your text up into short paragraphs, use short, punchy words and where appropriate use tools like highlighting, italics and different fonts to make it easy to follow the flow of your text – look at what I’ve done in this brief article to make it easier for you to read.
- Use a ‘hook’. Your biggest challenge in writing is to get the reader’s attention. Try to make sure that the first thing the reader sees will ‘hook’ their attention – this includes opening sentences, email subject lines and even applies to things like calendar invitations – how many invitations in your calendar are just boring descriptions, such as ‘Catchup on Teams’?
- Keep it short and punchy. We live in a world with lots of information but very little attention. Keep your text as brief and crisp as possible. As the writing guru Strunck advised in his great work ‘The Elements of Style’: ‘Omit needless words‘.*
- Endings matter. Often, how you order information will affect what people remember and how they feel about it. Try to make your last point resonant and easy to remember.
You now have some practical ideas to improve your persuasive writing ability and to increase your influence – try at least one of these ideas the next time you want to write in a persuasive way – I’d love to know how you get on!
*It’s always amused me that when EB White revised Strunck’s book, he ignroed the advice about concision and doubled the book’s length with his own advice!